The head of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections said Thursday that the state's troubled prisons for juveniles are safe, a week after an inmate punched a staff member, causing her to need hospital care.
Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher, who spoke to reporters after testifying before a state Senate committee about overcrowding in the state prison system, said the Lincoln Hills-Copper Lake prison complex "is a safe place for staff and offenders and we will continue to do the best in programming that will allow these young people to come back to their communities in a respectful and responsible manner."
Litscher's comments come amid an ongoing, nearly 3-year-old federal investigation into allegations of abuse by guards against young inmates at the juvenile prisons located in Irma, about 30 miles north of Wausau. The prisons, in response to a lawsuit brought by teenage inmates, are under a federal court order to dramatically reduce the use of pepper spray, isolation and shackles to control inmates.
On Monday, two lawmakers whose districts include the prisons asked U.S. District Judge James Peterson to reverse his order.
"Your order has not only jeopardized staff safety but it is jeopardizing the safety of youth," state Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, and Rep. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, said in their letter.
Last week Gov. Scott Walker's administration told the court progress is being made but that "significant unrest" remains.
Attorneys cited in court filings that the judge's order to change disciplinary tactics at the prisons was leading to inmates' behavior worsening.
Litscher declined to discuss the ongoing issues at Lincoln Hills, beyond declaring it to be safe.
He did not talk about Lincoln Hills during his Senate committee testimony either, but he did outline the need for the state to address an ever-growing overall prison population. It's now about 23,000 inmates.
Litscher said the prison system must implement ways to alleviate overcrowding by 2020, including expanding the earned release program, building temporary housing for older inmates and helping those released to be better prepared for life outside of prison so they don't return.
The Senate committee on government relations heard testimony on a bill that calls for replacing the 120-year-old prison in Green Bay with a new privately owned facility. Supporters said prime real estate near Lambeau Field that the current prison occupies could be developed, while a new prison could house more inmates at a lower cost.
The state is launching a new study of prison system needs amid the ongoing concerns at Lincoln Hills, the push to close the Green Bay facility and concerns about overcrowding.